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ArlingtonNewsYouth-theater troupe celebrates perseverance in challenging era

Youth-theater troupe celebrates perseverance in challenging era

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Supporters of Encore Stage & Studio got two for the price of one on May 26, as both this year’s annual honoree – and one whose award was handed out via Zoom during the pandemic – were celebrated during a fund-raising breakfast at Washington Golf & Country Club.

“We’re still standing, and for that, we say, ‘thank you!’” said Madaline Langston, the theater troupe’s educations-program director.

Encore – designed for performers and audiences in their teens and younger – had just wrapped up a production of “The Three Musketeers” on March 8, 2020, and was looking forward to the completion of a record-setting season.
And then? COVID.

“We rose to the occasion,” Langston said of the response. “We held a drive-through play in the cold in a parking lot, and then another in the heat. We held theater education outside before anyone else in the area did. None of this would have been possible without the support of the community.”


The troupe bounced back with an in-person theater camp (drawing 800) in the summer of 2021, following it up with an in-person, indoors 2021-22 season. It is set to open its first full-fledged musical in two years when “Annie Jr.” begins a two-week run June 3 at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington.

Among those whose lives has been touched by Encore is Quinn Sumerlin, who took her first class there in 2012 and began performing in shows in 2016.
“Encore has been a part of my life for a really long time . . . [and] will always be a part of me,” said the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program senior, who is about to head off to college. She praised “the wonderful community aspect” of the organization and camaraderie of the participants.

That’s the goal, Encore managing director Sara Strehle Duke said.

“The past two years have taught me that theater is ‘home’ [to those involved],” Duke said. Encore aims to allow young people to “be themselves and express their creativity,” she said.

The breakfast was a chance to “celebrate being back after being apart for so long,” said Carole Russo, a former Encore board chair and chair of the breakfast. She praised Encore’s efforts to provide additional “supportive adults in kids’ lives.”

Honored with Encore’s 2022 Celeste Groves Award at the celebration was Susan Keady, who began on staff by adapting the “Free to Be” tale for the stage in 1987 and, after a two-year break in 1996-97, returned to serve as artistic director.

“Susan’s a phenomenal mentor,” said Xander Tilock, who has performed in 17 productions under her tutelage and, having just graduated from Justice High School, is head to study theater at the University of Virginia.

Tilock praised the “strong work ethic, patience, teamwork” that Keady brought to her work. “You mean the absolute world to us,” she said.

“You are a wonderful teacher – you have not only prepared them for theater, you’ve helped prepare them for life,” said Groves, Encore’s executive producer emeritus and namesake of the award.

The appreciation was reciprocated by Keady.

“This is the best job ever,” she said. “There is nowhere on earth I’d rather be. I value all the collaborative effort. We really are a family.”
Keady told the story of a young performer in 2000 by the name of Erin Driscoll, who tried out for a part but was lacking in acting experience – yet had a voice that knocked the socks off Keady and everyone else.
On the spot, Keady ensured Driscoll was cast in the show, then proceeded to assist with her acting chops.

How’d it all pan out? Driscoll went on to become a Helen Hayes Award-winning professional actress and teacher, and returned to the 2022 breakfast to belt out a few songs of inspiration to those who followed her footsteps.

Also lauded at the event was Debra Leonard, Encore’s longtime costume and make-up designer, who received the Celeste Groves Award via Zoom during the height of the pandemic but was on hand for in-person accolades this year.
“She’s a master of her craft, and besides that, she’s a really lovely person,” Groves said.

What is now Encore Stage & Studio got its start with a mid-1960s summer production of “A Pocketful of Preposterous Poems” at Lubber Run Amphitheater. The show featured works by Ogden Nash, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.

The organization’s board chair, Cassandra Hanley, said the current long-term vision is to create a permanent facility Encore could call its own, while continuing to commission new plays and encourage a broader swath of the community to become a part of the organization.

“We’re reaching deeper into Arlington” while also looking for expansion possibilities, Hanley said.

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